River Watchers face challenges in 2021

ADDISON COUNTY RIVER Watch Collaborative volunteer Beth Eliason checks the level of a test sample during a 2017 water-sampling project. River Watch is starting a complex season of testing six local watersheds plus other water quality projects. Photo by Craig Zondag

It’s the most complicated sampling plan we’ve ever had. It’s a little intimidating, but it’s great doing new stuff.
— Matthew Witten

ADDISON COUNTY — Snow is melting and the rivers are flowing, which means it’s time for the Addison County River Watch Collaborative to launch its water-monitoring season.
“This is going to be our most complex season yet,” said River Watch Executive Director Matthew Witten.
River Watch’s mission is to monitor and assess the condition and uses of local rivers over time, raise public awareness of the values and functions of local watersheds, and support stewardship that improves water quality. The water-sampling season usually runs from about April to September.
Despite ongoing complications presented by the pandemic, River Watch is undertaking some new projects this year, including one in Middlebury and one in Lincoln.
One of its biggest challenges, however, may be navigating recent changes to funding and testing models at the state level.

Last fall, the LaRosa Partnership Program — a division of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) that offers funding, coordination and lab services to watershed organizations and monitoring groups like River Watch — went through a significant restructuring in hope of increasing efficiency.
“We’re so excited because in the past, we always required RFPs (requests for proposal) with scope of work from our partners, which meant that local groups and organizations had to prepare detailed proposals for their projects,” Bethany Sargent, who manages the DEC Watershed Management Division’s Monitoring and Assessment Program, told the Independent late last year. “The granting process was time-consuming and inefficient for both the department and its partners, so we’re taking that out of the equation.”
Partners like River Watch were also required to develop their own sampling plans, log their own data into the state database and prepare their own annual reports.
Now there will be one plan for the entire program and data reporting will be automated, Sargent said.
It will be nice to have that application work taken off River Watch’s plate, Witten said.

LaRosa has also narrowed the scope of its partners’ sampling work, which will focus on phosphorus, nitrogen and chloride, collectively known as PNC.
Because such samples don’t need to be rushed immediately to the lab, this will give LaRosa partners more scheduling flexibility, Witten said.
But it also means River Watch has to find alternatives for testing its E. coli sampling, which it does every season around Addison County.
The challenge with E. coli samples, Witten explained, is that they need to be put on ice and rushed to the lab for testing within four to six hours.
Now that LaRosa no longer accepts E. coli samples, River Watch has begun working with a second lab — Endyne Labs in Williston — which requires additional planning and additional funding.
“I think for a newer organization or one with a more streamlined mission the changes at LaRosa might be really great,” Witten said. “It just so happens that it’s really complex for us.”

At least River Watch will no longer have to transport its phosphorus-nitrogen-chloride samples to the Vermont Agriculture and Environmental Laboratory (VAEL) in Randolph. From now on, LaRosa will pick samples up from designated drop-off points around the state.
At least that’s the way it would work in an ideal world.
Actually, River Watch won’t get this benefit until next year because it’s now embarking on the final season of the Lewis Creek Bracket Monitoring Program in Starksboro, a four-year LaRosa program that includes sampling for E. coli near a former dairy farm.
Except LaRosa bailed.
“They won’t take E. coli samples anymore, but we’ve already done three years of the program, refining the study to focus on smaller tributaries. We still feel responsible to finish the project, not just for the sake of science, but because there are farmers who are asking, ‘Is it our poop? Or is it beaver poop?’”
So at the same time that River Watch will be hurrying some of its E. coli samples north to Endyne, it will be rushing its Lewis Creek samples east to VAEL in Randolph.
“That complicates things,” Witten said. “Some watershed groups are having to grind a bunch of gears to make adjustments to the new system.”
But it’s early yet, and 2021 promises to be an exciting year for River Watch in other ways.

River Watch has a number of projects going this year, Witten said:
•  Continuing its ongoing partnership with the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition to provide education and water sampling.
•  Sampling of six rivers beginning in May.
•  Completing the Lewis Creek Bracket Monitoring Program.
•  In partnership with Vermont Family Forests, starting a new project assessing two pristine tributaries, Isham Brook and Beaver Meadow Brook, which feed into the upper New Haven River in Lincoln and which are known for their trout.
•  Kicking off another new project measuring turbidity (murkiness) and storm runoff in public spots in the Barnes Brook Watershed, which covers the eastern part of Middlebury and includes its public schools.
“It’s the most complicated sampling plan we’ve ever had,” Witten said. “It’s a little intimidating, but it’s great doing new stuff.”
River Watch kicked off its training last weekend with a volunteer orientation. A subsequent training session on April 6 will address more nitty-gritty, logistical issues, to be followed by the key field training event on May 2, which will be held outdoors, in-person, in three different locations to keep numbers small.
For more information about volunteering — and to see sample training videos, visit
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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